Ed. Note: This is the second part of a three-part interview. To read the first part, please follow this link.
Discussed in this section: Murray’s appearance alongside Stanley Crouch and Loren Schoenberg discussing Duke Ellington in a three hour radio broadcast, the supreme artistry and importance of Ellington and Louis Armstrong, the fully orchestrated blues idiom statement, locomotive onomatopoeia, Michael James, Richard Brody’s recent criticism of Murray, “Jazz: The Experimenters,” an early public television documentary featuring Ralph Ellison-Cecil Taylor-Charles Mingus, et al., A.J. Liebling, Murray and the avant-garde, and Wittgenstein’s aesthetic theories.
Paul Devlin is a leading scholar of Albert Murray’s work and a scholar of American literature and culture in general, as well as a freelance critic. He is the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones, as told to Albert Murray (2011) and of the new book Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues. With Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Paul is co-editing the Library of America’s edition of Murray’s essays and memoirs, forthcoming in October. Paul earned his Ph.D. in English at Stony Brook University in December 2014 (his dissertation was on Murray, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Percival Everett). He has written for Slate, The Root, Bomb, The Daily Beast, Popular Mechanics, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, including scholarly journals. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, Jazz Journalists Association, PEN American Center, and The Authors Guild, and is an appointee to the MLA’s Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada.
Albert Murray (1916-2013), whose work is an American treasure, was one of the most original and incisive writers and thinkers of the twentieth century. With a signature balance of humor and erudition, he created what he felt were accurate literary representations of the African American experience, while counter-stating sociological narratives of victimhood and pathology. He saw it as his duty to relay black life as he knew it, with its wit and wisdom, its heroism and elegance. He wanted non-black Americans to be aware of how much African American culture informs their identity. But he also had an expansive, inclusive vision of the “Omni-American,” a person whose identity is the synthesis of many traditions, and who, for Murray, is well prepared for the modern world. In 1996 he received the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Award for lifetime contribution to American arts and letters. After retiring as a major in the U.S. Air Force in 1962 he wrote twelve books: The Omni-Americans (1970), South to a Very Old Place (1971), The Hero and the Blues (1973), Train Whistle Guitar (1974), Stomping the Blues (1976), Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (1986), The Spyglass Tree (1991), The Seven League Boots (1996), The Blue Devils of Nada (1996), Conjugations and Reiterations (2001), From the Briarpatch File (2001), and The Magic Keys (2005). He also helped create content for four more books: Conversations with Albert Murray (1997), Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (2000) (which he co-edited), Rifftide (2011) and the recently published Murray Talks Music (2016), a collection of his previously unpublished and uncollected interviews and writings on music, which has an introduction by Devlin, a foreword by the eminent writer Gary Giddins, and an afterword by cultural critic Greg Thomas. Full Stop is running three excerpts this week, but here is a brief one the publisher ran in May. Devlin talked with Full Stop over a period of weeks from May through July 2016.
A.M. Davenport: As we gather from the conversations collected in Murray Talks Music, we know Murray could really tell a story and communicate. He could improvise in conversation like it was nothing. There’s this great conversation between Loren Schoenberg, Stanley Crouch and Murray that was recorded on a WKCR radio show in New York and which you’ve published for the first time. It’s an enormously rich conversation, and one truly receives an understanding of who Murray was, what his humor was like, and how he interacted with colleagues who were decades his junior. What’s the wider significance this interview holds for the study of Ellingtonia?
Paul Devlin: Aside from containing a treasure trove of information and a variety of valuable perspectives on different moments in Ellington’s career, as well as intriguing glosses on specific works, it models the level of rigor that must be brought to study of his life and work. It features three world-champion quick wits and unparalleled Ellington experts, so it’s really special. It’s like the combination, in the old west, of being fast on the draw and having aim. I’m grateful that Loren and Stanley gave their permissions for the conversation to be included in the book. Stanley recently won the Windham-Campbell Award, by the way, and it is well-deserved. Profound scholarship and depth was and has long been out there in Ellington studies, in the work of Mark Tucker, Harvey Cohen, Maurice Peress, and many others. Ellington’s work, like that of Ralph Ellison, Wallace Stevens, and plenty of others, attracts top scholars. But hacks, like the blues, will always be back, and so, vigilance in defense of reputations — especially those of black artists, especially when it looks like fair play and historical accuracy has gone out the window in the interest of demoting their reputations — is always needed. Hacks often try to exert downward pressure on the reputations of the great: look at the recent backlash against Joan Didion. Soon — bet on it — there will be an essay called “Hear Me Out — Maybe Marilynne Robinson Isn’t That Good? [Ducks]” on some literary website. You’ll be pitched it in the near future. Haha. Watch. People will gasp and get mad and debate it, and so on. The same people who liked to play hall monitor in grade school often like to do the same thing on the literary-cultural internet. But I suppose it is not just a feature of the internet: Delmore Schwartz published an attempted takedown of Hemingway in Southern Review in 1938. Then there was James Baldwin’s essay on Richard Wright. There are many other examples. But the click economy, and the need to drum up outrage and debate on a daily basis, leads to more of that kind of thing. Yet it’s slightly different with Ellington: there has been an effort to undermine him ongoing since the 1940s. The anti-Ellington stuff a few years ago was disconcerting, as I describe in my introduction, but it was a rehash of a similar thing in 1987. And the fact that they keep trying is a testament to his achievement. Imagine the amount of bullshit he had to endure in order to see his grand artistic vision come to life over six decades? That’s the story, a heroic story, that an editor should want to sign up.
Why are Ellington and Armstrong so important to Murray? Are they deserving of being considered the best American artists?
I’d say Armstrong and Ellington are among the most important artists in all of human history. I don’t think they need any qualifiers. To qualify their achievements would be like saying Tiepolo was one of the best painters of his day, in Italy, or later Spain, where he moved for commissions. Take a look at Roberto Calasso’s book Tiepolo Pink (2011). Or, it would be like saying “Michelangelo was a really good sculptor — for the first half of the sixteenth century, at least.” It doesn’t sound right. Don’t get me wrong: critics and scholars should use their knowledge and judgment to make fine distinctions and qualifications, but a few artists are just beyond all that. Armstrong and Ellington are among the few artists to whom “of all time” can fairly be appended. Murray liked to say that Armstrong’s and Ellington’s contributions to the language of jazz were analogous, respectively, to the contributions of Chaucer and Shakespeare to English literature. Incidentally, I don’t think that Chaucer, with his court sinecures and whatnot, was much like Armstrong in real life, but Ellington’s real similarities with Shakespeare are myriad and uncanny. Yet Ellington’s music in a sense comprises a vaster universe than Shakespeare’s plays (which inspired Ellington and Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder). Jo Jones was right when he said (in Rifftide) that it could take 200 years to fully appreciate Ellington’s music and that we haven’t even gotten to the surface yet! When he said that, in the 1970s, most of Ellington’s scores — the sheet music for hundreds or probably thousands of pieces — were unavailable. Todd Stoll, of Jazz at Lincoln Center, recently told me how Jazz at Lincoln Center led the effort to make these scores available, and has donated 200,000 copies to high school music programs. Incidentally, the opinion of someone like Jo Jones on Ellington should be taken as seriously as Mozart’s opinion of Handel.
When we consider the significance of these musicians, whose music composes the very soul of this nation, we really need to re-train our ears to hear just how revolutionary their sound was. I mean, the synthesis, the originality, the swing; it’s unprecedented in human history.
Maybe some people need to re-train their ears and some people don’t, depending on the breadth of their musical exposure and education (formal or informal). Sometimes listening to jazz, for someone raised entirely on later music, requires an adjustment, or listening from another angle maybe. The rise of the backbeat in popular music kind of parallels the rise of the automobile, especially after World War II. Rock and rap sound really good in moving cars. In the 1991 comedy King Ralph, in which John Goodman plays an American slob who inherits the British throne, his character notes that in the doo wop song “Duke of Earl,” the “Duke, Duke, Duke” plays in tandem with a car passing lane dividers on the highway at 55 miles per hour. Incidentally, the tune was sampled by Cypress Hill around that time. There should be a book on the doo wop roots of hip hop, in which the preceding example would only be a footnote. An example can be made with that tune’s lyrics, but it’s really about the backbeat, which is aurally addictive and attractive, seeming to fit with contemporary motion and affect. In the 1960s and 70s Ellington experimented with the backbeat as well. I like both beats. So does Christian McBride — one of the great musicians of our time.
Big bands got to swinging the blues idiom statement in the 1920s and kept it up for a few decades afterwards. What was the inspiration for the fully orchestrated blues idiom statement? How did the sound that originated in the South become the soundtrack to life in northern urban centers?
I don’t know if the geographical divide means too much here. These things are mysterious. Nobody played the blues better than or had more natural feeling for it than Johnny Hodges, who was from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’ve heard a certain jazz paradox pointed out many times over the years, (and I’m forgetting where I picked it up from), but many would agree that Hodges had a more natural feeling for playing the blues than say, Coleman Hawkins, who was from Missouri, where perhaps you’d expect a musician to have an easier relationship to the blues. It’s a good old American paradox. The fully orchestrated blues idiom statement — say, a big band jazz arrangement done right, as Ellington and Strayhorn and many others did hundreds if not thousands of times, is often an onomatopoeic impression of a train: the rhythm section approximates the wheels and the train’s whistles are heard in the brass and wind instruments. A lot of people don’t realize that. Murray spells all this out in Stomping the Blues as nobody had come close to before, but there is plenty of evidence going back at least to the 1930s that this is how artists such as Ellington and Basie were conceptualizing their music. Take a look at this early 1930s clip of Ellington at 1:16:31 in the outstanding documentary Bluesland (which features Murray and blues scholar Robert Palmer as commentators). Before reading Murray I already had an idea about locomotive onomatopoeia through “The JB’s Monaurail,” which I learned about through EPMD’s “Let the Funk Flow.” As good as “The JB’s Monaurail” is, it is kind of simple compared to Ellington’s explorations (which are diverse, reflecting many different types of trains, yet only one aspect of his enormous oeuvre). There were several levels of train imagery in African American culture during Murray’s youth in the 1920s and beyond: the metaphorical freedom train (the Underground Railroad), the metaphysical gospel train (to Heaven), the train as communication network, as the porters transmitted news between black communities, and the actual train as a method of transportation out of the south and/or within the south and elsewhere, and not always for a fee, if you could “catch an armful” of it (as Ellison did to get from Oklahoma City to Tuskegee for the first time). For some good books with different perspectives on this, take a look at Kevin Young’s essay collection The Grey Album and Joel Dinerstein’s scholarly study Swinging the Machine.
This is the second book about jazz that you’ve edited. What is your background within the genre?
Studying on my own is part of what led me to Murray, but my education in jazz mostly comes through Murray and Michael James (1942-2007), who was Ruth Ellington’s son and Duke Ellington’s nephew, and was a jazz historian and a thoroughly informed “underground” intellectual of the sort who once populated Manhattan. Through Duke, he was also like a nephew to Murray, and Murray put me in touch with him in early 2002. Mike was famous for his late-night phone calls. If you wanted to learn about say, the genealogy of the trumpet from Roy Eldridge through Freddie Hubbard from 1am-2am on a Tuesday morning, Mike could oblige. Or, he would call you at that time to tell you about it, even if that topic was not of pressing concern to you at that moment. Haha. He could also tell you what it was like to hang out with Cootie Williams on tour in the late 50s, or what it was like watching Teo Macero in the studio. Unfortunately, he never wrote anything down. He could have been anything he wanted — a writer, a professor, anything — but he was a man of leisure. Perhaps he was like a learned English country squire — but the native New Yorker version. He was kind of a melancholy guy in that he had a longing for the lost jazz world he grew up in. But he also had a good, idiosyncratic sense of humor and a wry perspective on current events. He’d say “we’re living in Balzac’s Paris, Paul!” That was say, 2005. Imagine what he’d think now! I learned so much from him about Ellington, and also about Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Paul Gonsalves, Jo Jones, and so many others. But he had comprehensive knowledge about other topics too, especially American history and literature. Mike introduced me to Clark Terry, a mentor (his childhood trumpet teacher, until health precluded Mike from continuing) and lifelong friend, and almost got me a job driving for him. Mr. Terry ended up hiring one of his own former students, so that made more sense. Still, I’m grateful for having chatted with him a few times, in our interview and elsewhere. Anyway, I tried to make my jazz collection mirror Mike’s and Murray’s. And I read the jazz books they pointed me to. But I’ve studied a lot on my own. I did an enormous amount of background research for Rifftide. I learned a lot from talking with master drummer Michael Carvin. I’ve had extensive and fascinating conversations over the years with all sorts of musicians and critics. My academic specialization is in twentieth century American literature, particularly African American literature (and I also have expertise in nineteenth century American literature), but I admire the old eclectic New York intellectual tradition of knowing a lot about a lot: film, painting, sports, politics, history, business. You never know who knows what, and no credential can really tell you once and for all, and so you have to listen, and not assume.
You came up in the rap era, so did you have to retrain your ears to get into jazz?
In general, I suppose I first got into jazz and other earlier music through rap samples. Yet I was always somehow vaguely attracted to the big band sound — through old movies, or newer movies about World War II, I guess. I was too young to know anything about the big band revival in the 80s. But I was conscious of Tony Bennett’s comeback in the early 90s and I somehow appreciated it on some level. When I really started listening to jazz, it was not Ellington and Armstrong, but late Coltrane. I liked Pat Metheny too, and Bob James. I’m talking about when I was in high school, circa 1997. Simultaneously, I was really into James Brown and the JBs. I’d go to see Maceo Parker. I tried to check out works sampled by the producers I liked: Pete Rock, RZA, DJ Premier, KRS. Pete Rock gave an interview in the early 90s and admonished young people to check out old music. I kind of took that to heart, as I was going in that direction anyway. This was what they called the crate-digging era — producers were hunting for samples in old music. Anyway, I got into Ellington and Armstrong and Basie around the time I started reading Ellison and Murray, and it all clicked with me instantly. It was what I had been looking for. To your point, I don’t think Ellington, Armstrong, and Basie (and Benny Carter and Jimmy Lunceford and Mary Lou Williams) do not or should require a “retraining” of late Gen X or Millennial ears. But I suppose, as I said above, it depends on the background of the individual. And knowing where to start is important. I’d advise a kid today, if starting from scratch, to start with stuff made in modern studios (such as Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy or Satch Plays Fats or Ellington from the late 30s on), so they’d have an idea of what it perhaps sounded like in the 20s and early 30s, when the recording technology was not as good, when the bass could not be heard as well, and so on. Then, approach the earlier stuff. Up-tempo blues and swing is my thing. I’d suggest starting with something that swings hard, so that you understand what it is right way — the 1950s “Kinda Dukish/Rockin in Rhythm” medley with Quentin “Butter” Jackson’s trombone solo (at 3:48). I’ll give a few examples for someone who has had no exposure to this cosmos of music. The following is not even a cursory list, nevermind comprehensive or definitive. Listen to Basie’s entire 1936-46 catalog. Basie’s “Every Tub” (1938) seems to contain the compressed future of the next fifty years of American music (from r&b to heavy metal), especially in the last minute. Check out Basie’s “The King,” or “Doggin’ Around,” or his signature numbers such as “One O’Clock Jump,” or his version of “Five O’Clock Whistle” (especially after the two minute mark). Check out Ellington’s “Ko-Ko” from the 1950s Historically Ellington album (n.b. some knowledgeable people think it’s not as good as the original, but I just prefer to listen to it), “Body and Soul” from the album Duke Ellington’s Spacemen, and of course, the miraculous “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” from Newport in 1956. Knowing where to look is crucial. On the other hand, take McKinney’s “Cotton Pickers,” a top dance band of the late 20s and early 30s. I know it’s good and influential, but I can’t get into it. When I listen to it I continually reimagine what it could have sounded like a few years later, after Basie’s swing revolution. Now, that’s not the case with an immortal Armstrong piece from the 1920s, such as “King of the Zulus” or “Weatherbird” — either of which I could listen to over and over. I don’t think I’d tell a kid to start with “Potato Head Blues” or “West End Blues,” sublimity and canonicity notwithstanding. “King of the Zulus” seems underappreciated and underdiscussed to me. (I typed this before I knew that my acquaintance Ricky Riccardi, a top Armstrong scholar, led a band that did this tremendous cover). On the other hand, I love James Reese Europe’s music, which predates that by a decade. “Down Home Rag,” a hit of the 1910s, which jazz musicians stopped covering for some reason around 1940, is something I can listen to all day, and I’m always on the lookout for covers of it. (It was recorded often from the 1910s through the 1930s.) I listen to “Down Home Rag” in the car. I also listen to Ellington from the 20s to 70s, along with Basie, Benny Carter, Mary Lou Williams, Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry, Mingus, and contemporary artists such as Ethan Iverson, Jaimeo Brown, David Murray, Aaron Diehl, Wycliffe Gordon, Vijay Iyer, Brandee Younger, and so on. But I also listen to Laura Nyro, 19th century Irish street songs, 17th century English songs like “Hey Ho to the Greenwood,” and Gilbert and Sullivan songs — among a zillion other things. I never had any formal or self-conscious “retraining.” Perhaps it’s a long process. Let’s compare this with old movies. I love to show students movies from the 30s through the 50s. Most have never seen anything from that period, but they’re fascinated and sometimes enthralled when they do (even though some express skepticism at first), because in general, it was a better era of movie making in most regards. It takes no retraining of the eyes. It only takes knowing what’s out there and where to look, along with some contextualization. All it takes is a conceptual leap beyond what’s forced on the consumer.
I want to address Richard Brody’s criticism of Murray that appeared on The New Yorker’s website under the headline “Albert Murray and the Limits of Critics with Theories,” which was tweeted to millions with the headline “Beware Critics with Theories.”
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) May 26, 2016
The title is misleading, I think, because Brody goes on to say that Murray was not a critic. Did Murray wish to be perceived as a jazz critic? Was he opposed to avant-garde jazz of the late 60s and early 70s?
This is a long and complicated story, with a backstory. There is an idea out there, trotted out more than one might think, that Murray and Ellison didn’t like bebop. In a sense, it’s kind of a testimony to the power of their ideas that people get mad that they (think they) didn’t like something. Murray did in fact like bop — exponentially more than Ellison did — and Murray Talks Music makes that abundantly clear, in the Gillespie interview, in Appendix A (Murray’s canon of jazz arrangements), and elsewhere. Murray Talks Music highlights his appreciation of bop, but it was never a mystery and never possible for a truly attentive reader to think otherwise.
Richard Brody is a smart and idiosyncratic critic, but paradoxically, for such a independent thinker, his critique of Murray kind of comes off like the mad-libs version — fill in the template. Yet he also compared him to Barthes and Bazin, which is cool. I follow Richard’s work and often enjoy it. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s thoughtful. He wrote an excellent review of the 2014 exhibition of Ralph Ellison’s record collection, for which I was a curator and literary consultant, at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Brody was the only critic of his stature who paid any attention to the exhibition. I’m grateful for his interest and review. A week later he reviewed a documentary featuring Ellison called “Jazz: The Experimenters,” which Ellison pushed to get produced by National Educational Television and which aired in New York City and environs in 1965. Brody was once again one of the only critics to pay it any mind, but I think his review missed the big picture. I’ll explain. I unearthed this documentary, which as far as I could tell was last screened in 1995 at the Library of Congress. I hosted a screening of it (and other films featuring Ellison) at Maysles Cinema in Harlem in March 2014 as part of the Jazz Museum’s celebration of Ellison’s centennial. It was tied in with the exhibition. Brody did not attend the event at Maysles. He went to the Jazz Museum and watched it privately, so he didn’t hear my contextualizing introduction. Ellison was on the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which advocated the creation of public television system in the United States, and issued a book-length report on its findings (published as a mass-market paperback!). Ellison was one of the most high-profile/high-prestige advocates for public television and probably (along with James B. Conant) the most famous person on the Commission, which included several university presidents, leaders of industry, a concert pianist, a diplomat, and a labor leader. So, in the spirit of jump-starting public television, Ellison becomes the driving force behind one of the earliest public television documentaries, “Jazz: The Experimenters,” featuring the Cecil Taylor Quartet, and the Charles Mingus Ensemble, performing at the Village Gate. Ellison and the jazz scholar Martin Williams provided commentary. Ellison showcases the music of Taylor and Mingus, then explains in the most diplomatic and careful way (while quickly surveying the history of jazz) that while this is the new thing, he is not that into it, and he could especially do without the critics who fawn over it — because he fears it might end up obscuring a deeper, richer tradition. In a sense, he’s not criticizing the musicians, so much as the critics. Here is one of the key things Ellison had to say. Right or wrong or somewhere in between, it deserves to be taken seriously because of his experience and expertise:
Any critic from outside this tradition must of necessity fall back upon his own values and thus he may be unprepared to interpret what he has heard, even though he might himself be a trained musician, for he is likely to confuse the motives of jazz with those of classical European music. It has been such outsiders, well-meaning to a man, who sponsored the false-consciousness of the new experimentalism in jazz. They were also promoters for the cult of intellectuals who imposed their romanticism on the new jazz much as the early pioneers had imposed their own romanticism upon the figure of the American Indian. Now, beneath this romanticism, and beneath all experiments lies a reality of life and experience which nourishes the beginning of jazz and will continue to nourish its future life. It is this reality, notwithstanding European serious or respectable touchstones, which will provide the true standards of its validity.
(That’s my transcription. It was never published). Then, fifty years later, Brody overlooks these comments, yet asks why Ellison “despised” modern jazz and suggests Ellison couldn’t finish his second novel because he was tormented by modernity (an odd thing to say about the author of Invisible Man). (I published a theory of why Ellison did not finish it. I also respect the compelling theories of Michael Szalay and Barbara Foley. I think the truth was probably a combination of causes outlined by me, Szalay, and Foley — and the differences between our theories and previous ones is that ours are based on painstaking engagements with texts, not psychobabble speculation.) But the bigger point here, I think, is that Ellison was the prime mover of the program itself, thus capturing Taylor, Sunny Murray, Mingus, et al, on film in that moment. Ellison put Cecil Taylor on TV in 1965 playing the piano as a string instrument. The piece he performs is titled “Octagonal Skirt and Fancy Pants.” Taylor explains his perspective. I think it’s an extraordinary artifact and I think Brody’s skewed representation of it probably stopped people from going to the Jazz Museum to see it. (It was available to be viewed every day for several months.) Then again, at least he noticed. I have anecdotal evidence that it made an impact when aired. This was pre-cable. It went to millions of households. Ellison was trying to create content for an incipient public television. Albert Murray, by the way, is in the credits as a consultant for the three documentaries Ellison made or pushed to get made that year. (Of the other two, one was on Dizzy Gillespie and one was on Ellison himself.) Murray and Ellison were present at the creation of public television. Such artifacts should be understood in their own contexts instead of being put on trial fifty years later. The interesting point, the reason I tracked the film down (a long story and huge effort, for which Brody gives me no credit), and the reason the National Jazz Museum in Harlem paid for a license to show it as part of its celebration of Ellison’s centennial, is not to say “look upon Ellison’s sacrosanct opinions, ye mighty, and despair,” but to highlight it as a prismatic artifact of a moment, through which Ellison, Taylor, Sunny Murray, Mingus, and Williams — along with jazz criticism, jazz’s reception, public television, mass culture, and so on — can all be studied and appreciated in context. Incidentally, as Brody notes (and as Arnold Rampersad documents in his biography of Ellison), Ellison and Williams had a falling out shortly after this production, because Williams felt Ellison was just too stodgy and standoffish toward new music, but Williams and Albert Murray went on to work very closely together on jazz projects at the Smithsonian throughout the 1970s — I think that says something about the difference between Ellison and Murray on later jazz.
That’s the backstory behind his criticism of Murray?
Yup, well, that’s where he was coming from in his essay on Ellison, with whom he conflates Murray far too much. I’ve written a handful of negative or mixed book reviews and I’ve received a few mixed reviews. People have replied to me, and I know it’s tempting to reply. Normally I never would, but since you asked, there is something especially odd about his review and there is a larger point to be made about the angle it’s coming from. Brody said Murray was not really a jazz critic. Fair enough. I mentioned to him on Twitter that indeed, he’s right, Murray did not want to be considered a jazz critic: he never reviewed a performance or an album. Murray discussed this very point with me. He wasn’t a work-a-day critic. He did see himself as a critic in the sense of being a mediator between a work of art and the uninitiated — but that’s not what Brody meant, and I get it. What I was most annoyed with, more so than the piece itself, was the social media headline, which was “Beware Critics with Theories,” (but then, of course, he says Murray was not a critic). The headline “Beware Critics with Theories,” with a big photo of Murray, then goes out to millions on social media and can be read, subtly, if quickly scrolling, as “Beware: Murray.” The piece was strange in a variety of ways, from its version as originally published being constructed around a misattributed quote (said by Ellison, not Murray, which I pointed out to Brody) to its stumbling over its own logic, to feeling somewhat more hostile in its second published version, despite Richard’s generous comments on Twitter, where he offered extensive, kind praise for Murray and the book. I think the piece is fascinating because it is reflective of a lot of ambivalence out there about Murray from the age group for which the avant-garde was new and exciting. I told Brody thanks for paying attention, and for his nice comments, and I mean that. The day his piece came out was the day of a panel at the Jazz Museum for the book’s release, and I invited him to join us for a friendly debate. He had other plans, but he knew he would have been warmly welcomed to debate.
The bigger picture, aside from Brody, is that there are a few holier-than-thou promoters of avant-garde jazz who are dismissive of the idiomatic elements of blues and swing. Dig this 2011 tweet by Christian McBride:
That’s what’s sadly missing from jazz these days — cholesterol. Grease. Fatback. Stank. Lard. Real Butter. Too much non-fat jazz these days.
— Christian McBride (@mcbridesworld) October 14, 2011
I could not have said it better! Some critics will say, “well Murray was OK, but he didn’t like what I like — which is music that doesn’t swing.” What kind of criticism is that? It’s sort of hilarious when taken to an extreme. Everyone has a limit. Murray thought Virgil Thomson was a great music critic. So do I. Thomson panned Ellington’s 1943 Carnegie Hall concert — the debut of Black, Brown, and Beige, which aged far better than most critics expected it to. Thomson was open to Ellington’s music, he just wasn’t impressed on that particular evening, and worked for a newspaper and had to file his copy. My point is, Murray didn’t hold it against him. Some ideological critics hold blues and swing against Murray without bothering to understand why he advocated it and how it fits into his larger conceptions of art and life and idiom and history. Now, that approach is regrettable, but it gets worse: “forget him, he didn’t like what I like.” They’ll say, well, he didn’t like Parker, Miles, Gillespie, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. I say, yes, he did, look at such and such page in Stomping the Blues.
I don’t know what else to ascribe it to but not reading all the words on the page. Then they’ll they say, well he didn’t like — whatever — AACM, et al. That’s like their ultimate litmus test, I guess. Using litmus tests to punish or dismiss thinkers, along with endless proscription, is probably part of our cultural heritage from the puritans. (Cf. James Wolcott’s recent essay in Vanity Fair on mob mentality on the internet.) It’s a worthless heritage, of course. On the internet people will tell you to do or not do all kinds of things: they’ll tell you not to wear shorts or use adverbs or watch this show or that show, and say you don’t have to (shouldn’t) read this or that thinker anymore, and many other things. Who knew, pre-internet, that so many people had such despotic tendencies? Anyway, Murray loved Thelonious Monk’s music: he wrote about him, he wrote a poem about him, he discussed him in interviews. But I was told by Brody that his admiration for Monk doesn’t count as being admiration for later music, because of Monk’s connection to Ellington. I must admit, I was sort of dumbfounded by that comment. Who was more experimental than Ellington? Look at a late album like Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. As Murray says in his interview with Marsalis in the book: “nobody called Monk old fashioned. And Monk is Duke. And Duke is ragtime.” Murray didn’t literally mean that or mean that was the end of the story. He was making a point, as one does in interviews. It’s a thought-provoking reframing of something to make the listener think about it a different way. Mingus wrote an extended work called “MDM” – Monk-Duke-Mingus. But Murray’s admiration for Mingus, I’ve also been told by Brody, does not count. Why not try to figure out why Monk and Mingus admired Ellington so much? Ellington was always adapting and evolving, but at the same time, younger musicians recognized all kinds of building blocks and possibilities in his older music. Instead of looking at what Murray did like and ask why this thinker and writer put such an effort into explaining it in such a sophisticated and poetic way, they say well, he didn’t comment upon this thing I liked when I was in college. I’m not interested in that approach to criticism, but I worry these dismissals will scare people off of reading Murray — kind of like a tweet that goes out to millions saying “Beware.” Some people look for any alibi to avoid reading sophisticated thinkers. It’s almost a cottage industry. Soon, nobody will have to read anything. “This thinker is read by trolls on the internet now, so you don’t have to read his work,” — nevermind that said trolls likely haven’t the training to understand him or her. It happens to dozens of thinkers, but I’ll give you a recent example. Hannah Arendt’s segregationist stances (see Ellison’s essay “The World and the Jug”) and attempts to rehabilitate Heidegger are glaring flaws on her record and reflect poor judgment, but she was right about other things, and her observations seem especially relevant to understanding recent history, as Michelle Dean has brilliantly pointed out on Twitter. Arendt, by the way, also figures importantly in the life of Romare Bearden. They were neighbors at one point.
What was Murray’s problem with the avant-garde?
In general, Murray thought the avant-garde in jazz sounded too European — in other words, he thought it didn’t swing the blues. But there are major exceptions. Murray owned a bunch of truly avant-garde 1970s jazz records (for research, I think, more than for enjoyment) and followed European art music. He was friends with René Liebowitz, a mentor to Pierre Boulez, and followed Boulez’s career closely. His critics seem to never stop and think “maybe he was wary of the avant-garde because he was listening for something that I’m missing, or maybe I’m listening to the wrong thing because of ideology.” I guess that did happen to some bright young critics in the 1970s. But the position of some critics (not Brody) of his writings on music, who, incidentally, rarely if ever address his writings on topics other than music, is often stale, boring, utterly predictable, tied up with dislike of the Wynton Marsalis of 1990 (whose diverse and prolific work of the last twenty years they tend to ignore) and is also tied up with the idea that music that is aurally unpleasant is somehow politically and morally correct because of the way it sounds. That’s another iteration of the puritan morality that has been diffusing and replicating itself in this country for hundreds of years. They’ll apply lower case c “conservative” to a thinker like Ellison or Murray in order to try to associate such a thinker with American political conservatism. Such guilt-by-association word gaming is not an intellectual activity. But it could be a conscious strategy. People read Murray for the first time and then tell me, “wow, I’d thought he was a conservative! I had it all wrong.” (Murray explains his relationship to the word “conservative” in Murray Talks Music, by the way.) Somebody will write that “Murray’s taste in jazz was conservative” and then it becomes “Murray . . . was conservative.” It’s like a gag you’d see on The Simpsons, but somehow it happens in real life. Their definitions of conservative are all out of whack, and to me, suggest bad intentions. He was a conservative because he didn’t want to see blues idiom music — and all the black history contained therein — disappear? Because he wanted it conserved along the lines of European art music? I should note that even if he was a political conservative, he’d still be worth reading, just as Edmund Burke is worth reading. But I worry that the label scares people off. Some people take shortcuts and others don’t. Searching for some kind of arbitrary purity in taste is an anti-intellectual activity. But getting back to Murray’s critics from a free-jazz perspective: a lot of his critics are boomers who got something out of the avant-garde when it was new in the 60s and 70s and have an emotional attachment to it, and that’s understandable. And they were also engaged with their own struggle with their parents’ generation. But part of the idea behind jazz repertory — I think — was to separate classic jazz from nostalgia — “boy, the way Glenn Miller played . . .” — and so on. Nobody has nostalgia for the court of the Esterhazys or London under Queen Anne — other places and moments where music flourished. “All jazz is modern” is the motto of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The motto is not “gee whiz, the 40s were fine.” And yet every tune is placed in historical context prior to being played on stage, in concerts broadcast live on the internet, for free. And certainly the history of jazz does not end with Lincoln Center. But perhaps a lot of historical jazz did not end because of Lincoln Center. I think that’s a crucial distinction.
We can still read and admire our greatest writers without condemning them just because their opinions don’t align with our own sentiments.
One would hope. It’s even worse when a writer or philosopher didn’t even share the sentiments of those misreading him or her, yet gets lumped with his or her misinterpreters anyway. That’s happened to Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze at various times. Let me illustrate another example, going back to my early point. A.J. Liebling, one of history’s first media critics (and perhaps the most incisive one yet) and one of the finest war correspondents, is also recognized as one of the giants of food writing, and an authority on fine cuisine. But he didn’t like pizza — he was appalled by its burgeoning popularity in the 1950s. I can find that amusingly quaint, which I do, while also understanding why he felt that way. I disagree with him. I like pizza, but it doesn’t stop me from reading him and learning from him on many non-pizza related topics. You might find the ways or particular opinions of an older professor or older relative amusingly quaint, but still recognize his or her special perspective and knowledge. To do otherwise would be intellectually irresponsible. Incidentally, all some people know about Liebling is that he turned a few boxing trainers into one composite character, and think of that as something to get self-righteous about. Same with Joseph Mitchell. That’s the standard alibi for not reading them. I think it reflects an uninteresting and, to be frank, somewhat crazed ex post facto moralism. Obviously, giving these guys — writers of unsurpassed talent — some leeway was The New Yorker’s m.o. at the time, in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. This is not to suggest that I don’t appreciate Jill Lepore’s fascinating and important recent research on Mitchell — a scholarly triumph.
As I note above, I like plenty of music Murray didn’t or wouldn’t like. I love Dave Brubeck’s music. Murray didn’t care for his music at all. He had valid aesthetic reasons — I don’t think his dislike of Brubeck is quaint in any way. He thought Brubeck sounded a little too sleek. Yet despite enjoying most of the music Murray also enjoyed, Brubeck’s music sounds good to me. Jazz at Lincoln Center did a big tribute to Brubeck a few years ago. (Carlos Henriquez’s arrangement of Take Five was magnificent.) Murray’s personal taste never was the end of the story there — sometimes it wasn’t part of the story at all. But my takeaway from knowing this is that if I were to design a history of jazz syllabus or curriculum, even informally, I wouldn’t make Brubeck central. I wouldn’t put Brubeck above or before Ellington — but neither would Brubeck, who, like Monk and Mingus, adored Ellington! Incidentally, Wittgenstein’s lectures and notes on aesthetics are essential here. They can clear a lot of things up. Wittgenstein felt ethics and aesthetics were inexpressible through metaphor. My master’s thesis, in 2004, was a reading of Hemingway’s late work through Wittgenstein’s late work (which also took into account parallels in their early work). For Wittgenstein, long and careful study of a cultural form makes one an appreciator — the internal logic of a form reveals itself, and true appreciators assess creative works through commentary on specific, formal aspects: not with political or sociological caveats, or resort to metaphor. You can see this happen in real time with someone like, say, Tim Gunn — he’ll make a snap decision, based on a vast reservoir of knowledge about fashion and say, this hem is too long here, or this sleeve isn’t right. Wittgenstein makes a similar point. He says, in effect, if I want a cloak like a certain African tribe wears, and I know the idiom, the only way I can explain it to the cloak maker is through measurements or specific physical details — details observed over a long period or over a short period of time with exceptional attentiveness. Saying I want a cloak that symbolizes the glory of tribe x would not mean anything to the cloak maker. Yinka Shonibare has done marvellously playful things and presented multilayered critiques through playing with fashion’s idioms. I can decide in a few seconds if a rapper is worth listening to — an inspiring life story or political opinions don’t enter the equation. Jazz experts do this all the time. They can instantly hear if something is off. Italo Calvino says, in his essay “Why Read the Classics?”, that someone who has read the classics will instantly recognize the place of a new classic in the family tree.
A.M. Davenport is the Interviews Coeditor for Full Stop and an Editor at The Scofield.
Works Cited To The Complete Three-Part Interview
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